The parts of Watch Dogs that are terrible are the parts that make a good game great. Characters, theme, meaningful gameplay connected with meaningful storylines, clever self-aware writers working closely with game designers, internal consistency, vision. These are many of the things that define the Bioshock 2s, the Grand Theft Auto Vs, the Metro Last Lights, the Tomb Raiders. These are the things that can elevate videogaming as a medium.
Watch Dogs has none of these things. It is an elaborate trifle, a AAA time fritterer, a playground with skyhigh production values mired in a bog, a dessert tray without an accompanying meal. It is mostly hollow, almost entirely meaningless, and only accidentally relevant. And I’m having a grand time with it.
After the jump, confused Grand Theft Auto V fanboi. Age: 46. Occupation: game critic. Income: $32,700.
I suspect Ubisoft’s model of spreading development across multiple studios allows for technical brilliance but saps their games of the meaningful narrative drive you get with an auteur, or a tightly knit studio, or even just vision. I don’t have any actual insight into how Ubisoft is making the games I mostly enjoy, but that’s my theory based on my time with Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creeds, Splinter Cells, and post-Clint Hocking Far Crys.
After my early hours with Watch Dogs, I wrote about the awful storyline and characters. It gets worse from there. For instance, a girl with a dragon tattoo shows up. Not literally, because that might be kind of sly. Then you have to sneak into prison like you did in, I think, every Splinter Cell ever. Then you have to do a whole lot of brittle scripted stuff that makes no sense, often involving tailing someone or brushing up against instant fail states or just figuring out some godawful pattern. The open world closes and you’re in the clutches of bad mission design in the service of a poorly written story that makes no sense.
But there are still problems with Watch Dogs in the wider world. It’s a sad open world these days that ignores the Psychopath Problem. Namely, that turning a player loose in a city — especially an armed player who can drive vehicles — is invariably going to be a game about a psychopath, so you have to somehow acknowledge it. Sleeping Dogs tracked your cop vs criminal progress. Saints Row IV imagined a virtual illusory world where nothing mattered. Assassin’s Creeds are staffed with guards. Grand Theft Auto V solved the Psychopath Problem best by being about an actual psychopath. You have to do something like this, because players are going to drive on sidewalks. It’s what we do. Pretending it’s not going to happen is just going to break the worldness of your open world.
But Ubisoft hides its head in the sand while I go on my psychotic rampages, many of which Ubisoft themselves sent me to do. “I have to stop this guy,” the main character mutters to himself before a criminal convoy mission in which I’ll blow up a bunch of cars on a busy city street. “He’s gone too far.” I steal a car to prevent a mugging three blocks away. I end up having to shoot a bunch of cops because they came at me. I slaughter twenty gang members but not the gang leader (him I have to run up and punch). And don’t get me started on the idea of a supposedly pro-people vigilante who nonchalantly empties the bank accounts of widows, organ donors, social workers, abused spouses, recovering addicts, and homeless vets. I did it because I need the money for…well, I’m not sure what, because I have unlimited guns, cars, and gadgets. I guess I don’t need the money. But why would I ever not steal money that can be stolen with impunity? I think I had to answer that question in an ethics class in college once. I don’t remember the answer. Really, Ubisoft needs to answer that one for me. They made the game. I’m just playing it.
I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance”, because it’s such a smugly clunky beard-stroker expression for a simple concept: gameplay that doesn’t fit the internal fiction. But if any game deserves the term, it’s Watch Dogs. It just makes no sense. Ubisoft doesn’t care. Their open world is fatally broken, unaware, clumsy, as brutally jarring as the roadblocks you raise in front of pursuing cars. The entire game slams into the dissonance, its rear wheels lifting into the air, its chassis buckling, glass shattering, time slowing to lovingly showcase the damage, narrative physics throwing you through the windshield onto the pavement. Welcome to Watch Dogs. You want a story? Have a faceful of pavement instead.
It only takes a few horrible storyline missions to resign yourself to these facefuls of ludonarrative dissonance. Soon enough, you will accept Watch Dogs on its own unambitious terms or you will go back to Grand Theft Auto V (the announcement of Grand Theft Auto V for next-gen consoles and PCs couldn’t have come at a better time for Watch Dogs, because with that in the pipeline, I’m not about to go back to my last-gen Grand Theft Auto). This being an expansive and meticulously detailed Ubisoft world peppered with diversions, it’s easy enough to ignore the stupid revenge storyline in which a man avenges his murdered…niece? What kind of revenge yarn doesn’t have the guts to kill a man’s direct family? In the sequel, Aiden Pearce will avenge his first cousin, once removed, on his mother’s side, from a previous marriage.
So never mind all that. You’re in a consequence-free loosey-goosey open world in which only one of the activities is the foreboding yellow dot that marks an impending godawful storyline mission. There are a hundred better things to do and absolutely no reason not to do them. This isn’t just Watch Dogs, it’s Chicago! Which looks generic to me, but I don’t have much of a frame of reference beyond Cheers. Was Cheers in Chicago? What about Family Ties? Party of Five? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Chicago on an old TV show. ER? That was Chicago, right? Whatever the case, this is Chicago with a lame set of landmarks I can collect. “On this street corner, Lefty Winkowitz was gunned down during the Prohibition”. “This is where an abandoned button factory used to be, but it burned down”. “This office building is where Chicago filed the paperwork to be eligible for the 1957 World Fair, which was instead in Des Moines”. “Baseball something something!”. But the joke’s on me, because I can’t stop collecting them. That’s actually Watch Dogs in a nutshell. The joke’s on me, because I can’t stop playing it. There’s far too much to do, and it looks too good, and the hacking/stealth conceit is too clever, and the driving and shooting are too well done to not play just because the story is bad and the internal consistency has been defenestrated.
What hooked me first is the multiplayer. And this isn’t multiplayer in the sense that I have to back out of the main game when I want to play multiplayer, a la Assassin’s Creed or even that bottom character dial in Grand Theft Auto V. This multiplayer is just one of the many diversions, folded smoothly among the rest of the diversions. Watch Dogs, a game about diversions, can’t afford to play favorites. So, sure, it’s got traditional multiplayer where you can race a rather clumsy race around a track, or team deathmatch in relatively small arenas. I don’t recommend either of those as they’re more fuss than they’re worth. The more intriguing multiplayer is the interplayer hacking and tailing. You just drop into someone else’s game and hack his phone while he frantically runs around and tries to find you. Ha ha, I’m hiding over here, you dope. Oh, you found me and now I’m running for my life while you let loose with a shotgun. It’s all something that happens along with the rest of the game. Say, after you collected a hidden bag of money and before you played a pipedream puzzle to hack into a cutscene of a guy pounding on an apartment door because his girlfriend won’t get an abortion. Alternatively, the hacking happens to you. You were on your way to work out a noncommittal climbing puzzle to unlock new activities in the nondescript northeast corner of the map when someone starts hacking you. Now have a quick multiplayer cat-and-mouse session before going on your way. The tailing is even less involved. But these multiplayer minigames are small doses of what made the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer so good. They’re about hiding and chasing rather than simply shooting. They’re premised on stealth and deception rather than shotguns and sniper rifles.
Some bits of Watch Dogs are closed off behind brief loading screens. These are called “digital trips”. They are the latter day equivalent of the GamePig from System Shock. But instead of playing a little 8-bit game inside your primitive 3D world, you’re playing a game inside your game using your game. The equivalent of the trippier side missions in Saints Row IV are nested minigames in Watch Dogs, good for tens of minutes of gameplay, with threes of skills on their own skill trees, and primed for Ubisoft to plug in whatever the heck DLC they want. The first round of DLC is about scanning a crowd to pick out the robots and shoot them. Okay, I’ll do that. It’s not quite as hearty as Alone, an eerie robot apocalypse with persistent progression as you lift a supernatural darkness from downtown Chicago, one neighborhood at a time. But it’s yet another tantalizing diversion while I ignore that yellow icon for the next campaign mission. Ha, to think I almost didn’t want to try a minigame called Alone! Sure, I’m definitely going to play something called Spider Tank and Madness. I’ll even try those tediously endless virtual reality shooters and crazy coin obstacle courses just because they’re in here. Games inside games inside games, a mad set of Russian nested dolls to keep me from noticing the lack of meaningful characters or stories. We’re that much closer to getting an MMO inside an open-world. Make it happen, Ubisoft. You know you want to.
And as you’re doing these side missions and miniactivities and diversions and whatever else you can do to enjoy these production values without subjecting yourself to the storyline, you’ll come to appreciate that the driving is great, the gunplay is great, the ambience is great, the visuals are great, and the song list isn’t as bad as it would have been if Ubisoft had used public domain music. Here you are in a next-gen open world, doing open world stuff that really shows off the hardware. Choose your platform carefully. I’ve played Watch Dogs on a PC with minimum specs (ugh), on a Playstation 3 (ugh), and on a Playstation 4 (ahh!). What a fantastic showcase for the Playstation 4. The secret is that Watch Dogs keeps you firmly grounded. This is a game without flying, so don’t expect any helicopters or jet packs. Don’t think you’re going to get to the top of that skyscraper to enjoy the view. The spectacle is carefully engineered for a boots-on-the-ground eye level. This is a game that does what it does because you can’t go wherever you want to go.
And here’s where I’d normally slap a couple of stars onto the Watch Dogs review and then go do a couple more missions while waiting for Rockstar to finish the Playstation 4 version of Grand Theft Auto V. But here’s also where something weird has happened. Here’s where I’m reminded that even though Ubisoft fails at some of the things most important to me, they at least succeed in doing interesting new things, sometimes inadvertently. For instance, one of my favorite accidental RPGs in recent years is the superlative Splinter Cell Blacklist, a stealth game about saving up to buy better stealth pants. I loved what Assassin’s Creed 3 said about America, but not with its awkward little storyline. There you were, bopping about doing the usual poorly designed missions and free-form gloriously pointless open worlding among the trees and Colonial eaves, and along the way, you nurtured a slice of America in your own colony. It’s as if, oops!, Ubisoft had so much going on that one aspect of it was bound to resonate with any given player. So there I was, air assassinating ocelots when I found a really cool observation about my country.
Something similar happens in Watch Dogs. The premise, which comes more and more to the forefront as you clamber up the various skill trees, is that you’ve got hacking superpowers that let you blow stuff up and get rich. Your cell phone is a magic wand. Press a button to interact with various hotspots and stuff happens. It’s mostly simple, always scripted, and surprisingly distinct among the arsenal of usual videogame powers. Who needs grenades when you can just blow up a gas valve? So what if I can’t shoot out the window of my car? I’ll just hack the stoplights so another driver conveniently T-bones my pursuer. This stuff doesn’t get old partly because I haven’t already done it in a hundred other games. Watch Dogs is doing unique things. Name another game that does unique things. Sorry, I meant another AAA game.
There’s also a weird divine element to these superpowers. In the 1987 movie Wings of Desire, angels preside over Berlin, listening impassively to people’s thoughts. This was 20 years before people would broadcast those thoughts on Facebook and pipe them to each other over cell phones and texts. Now you’re one of those angels, except that this divine superpower is creepy instead of haunting in the way of a black-and-white Wim Wenders movie. I mean, seriously, where did those angels get off listening to what people were thinking? What a bunch of perverts.
Considering the slapdash nature of most of Watch Dogs’ world building, it’s surprising that Ubisoft has put into Chicago so many private life details, most of which you’ll just skip on your way to hacking $264 from someone’s bank account or downloading a song you won’t play in a car you won’t drive. But sometimes, you’ll stop and listen, or read an exchange, or watch a collectible cutscene. Sometimes, these virtual people have tiny puffs of life breathed into them. Sometimes the emergent combination of a text description will conspire with a snippet of conversation to create the illusion of actual people in an actual world. Sometimes Watch Dogs feels alive and maybe even relevant. Ubisoft doesn’t address the Psychopath Problem, but they throw a curious sideways light onto the issue of privacy in a digital age. It doesn’t matter to me as a character in the world of Watch Dogs because I, superhacker and avenging angel Aiden Pearce, am above those issues because my niece got murdered! And besides, I’m only a few xp from getting another skill point. But I, game player and sometime concerned citizen Tom Chick, find it really skeevy that this magic wand reads these fake people’s thoughts. Why is this even in here? Why did Ubisoft write all these uncomfortable little vignettes for me to see or skip as I please? Should I care? Does it matter?
It’s not a very articulate political statement. It’s certainly not as articulate as Rockstar’s darkly satirical editorial about torture. It might not even be a political statement so much as an observational bit of weird world building, like the way some cars use their turn signals or the way people open umbrellas when it rains or the way a firetruck trundles down the street with its siren blaring, but going absolutely nowhere because I followed it to find out. But whatever it is, it’s there, as sure as a strange buzzing noise on the line. Ubisoft might not know how to drive home a point. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make one while giving me a grand place to drive on the sidewalks.
You play as Aiden Pearce, a brilliant hacker, former thug, and personality-free douchebag whose criminal past led to a violent family tragedy that happened to someone else's family. Well, his sister's. I guess it is technically his family, so fair enough. Now on the hunt for those who hurt your family -- she was your niece, after all! -- you'll be able to monitor and hack all who surround you by manipulating everything connected to the city's network and scripted by the game developers to be hackable. Access omnipresent security cameras, download personal information to locate a target, control traffic lights and public transportation to stop the enemy, and more, much of which is skeevy and might even accidentally make a relevant point about privacy in the digital age. So take that, NSA!